The cosy, pro-sleep consensus is showing signs of breaking.
The nap is in – there’s no doubting it. Once associated with laziness (consider the saying “caught napping”, or “sleeping on the job”), a growing body of research touting the health benefits of an afternoon kip has seen the practice receive endorsements from Google and The Huffington Post. Both have shelled out on dedicated sleeping pods (see picture) in recent years, retailing at around $8,995 to $12,985 (£7,884) a pop.
The November 2009 edition of Harvard Medical School’s Health Letter pointed out that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine used to recommend that people “avoid taking naps if you can”, but the phrase no longer returns any search results on its website.
So is the debate over – is napping at work now an undisputed virtue? And should we expect to see sleeping pods, or at least cheaper alternatives like hammocks, cropping up in offices across the country?
There’s reason to suspect not. Of course, it’s hard to argue with the scientific literature; one seminal 2012 study in the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory journal found that people who had taken a 10-minute nap performed much better at memory tasks than those who had not, while those who had slept for 60 minutes outperformed both.
But disappearing for an hour every afternoon is unlikely to be feasible for many employees. And the science suggests that there could be other downsides to grabbing 40 winks at work. Sleep inertia, that groggy feeling you get for a while after waking up, tends to vary from person to person. But it’s been shown to be harder to shake off at times when your brain doesn’t expect to be sleeping, Rafael Pelayo of Stanford University told the Wall Street Journal. Cutting out the worst of it therefore means getting your body’s sleep cycle accustomed to the rhythm of afternoon sleeping – and this can take time.
“We know that naps are theoretically good,” Maria Konnikova, who writes for the New Yorker’s science section, recently told Slate’s The Gist podcast. But you “really need to know how to time it, otherwise it completely screws up your day and your alertness.” There are a range of apps and biometric trackers that people can use to calculate sleep cycles and get the patterns right, but this is very hard to self-administer, she says. Not to mention that a regular nap pattern might not suit all of us. The siesta isn’t sacred – meetings and crises can regularly intrude on nap time, breaking a hard-won body clock pattern.
And for those of us who already struggle to fall asleep in the evening, Ralph Downey of the Sleep Disorders Center at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California says a kip may only make things worse. “Even just a little bit of a power nap reduces your night-time sleep drive,” he told Health.com.
It’s too soon to say that we’ve reached peak nap, and the momentum is certainly still with the likes of Google and The Huffington Post. Just last week, the The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor announced that it will trial napping stations in its Shapiro Undergraduate Library, which is open 24 hours a day. But while a quick snooze may suit students finishing an essay at 4am, don’t expect the practice to take over the corporate world any time soon.
Make sleeping a science
SleepBot claims to be the “most complete sleep tracker, smart alarm, and ambient sound machine” app, allowing you to customise your sleep patterns. Features include smart wake up – a gradual alarm that adjusts to your noises and movements in the 30 minutes before going off. It also comes with a range of graphing and analytical tools for serious quantified self enthusiasts. Critics claim that it’s always incredibly time-consuming to get on top of sleep cycles, but this app certainly isn’t short of the tools needed.